The Penguins host the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight for the Penguins’ last preseason game before next week’s regular season opener. It’s the closest the Blue Jackets will be getting to seeing the Stanley Cup this year without going to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto; just being in the building where the Cup will be next week.
Of course, every team starts the season with zero points, so technically every team has a chance to win the Cup, but let’s be real: the Blue Jackets did nothing to get better in a division where they need to constantly keep up. Their biggest transactions were as follows:
- They bought out Scott Hartnell’s contract.
- They traded Brandon Saad back to Chicago for Artemi Panarin.
- That’s it.
After all those blockbuster moves, they are no better equipped to eclipse the Rangers, Capitals, or Penguins in terms of quality, and with the Hurricanes creeping up behind them, the Flyers and Devils picking up future franchise players this past Entry Draft, and the Islanders actually getting a little better by trading for Jordan Eberle and planning to give their young guys a shot, Columbus better start figuring out how to get better or they’re going to be forgotten in a hurry.
The problem for Columbus is a pretty common one, but it’s complicated. They’re still a relatively new franchise, and they’ve yet to get out of the first round of the playoffs. They are desperate to remain relevant with their fans, and the constant will-they/won’t-they make the playoffs may be sufficient for the near-term, but they need to do one of two things: 1.) get themselves some more quality players and make a proper push for the Cup, or 2.) tank and get themselves some more lottery picks.
Invariably, every team must go through this cycle of playing like shit before realistically accumulating enough talent to start moving back into competitiveness and potentially making a run for the Cup. The Penguins went through it, as did the Blackhawks, the Kings, the Bruins…pretty much every team to win a Cup in the salary cap era.
Teams that float around in the playoff bubble, like the Blue Jackets, the Stars, the Panthers, the Wild, the Islanders, the Senators, the Blues, these teams are all teams that have spent the last five-to-ten years making the playoffs and generally exiting early, or narrowly missing the playoffs, and because they aren’t drafting sure-fire generational players they are making incremental improvements here and there but not making the leap that they need to. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, they are stagnating while the Panthers and Maple Leafs are moving up, if the Lightning can stay healthy they’ll be in the playoffs, and as I said the ‘Canes are going to be breathing down Columbus’ neck soon if not this season.
Of course, anything can happen in the course of an entire NHL season: players get hurt, some players overperform or underperform, and trades all can throw what we expect into a blender. Columbus could stay healthy and everyone else can flop out. Even then, the Blue Jackets don’t have the depth of their rivals and it doesn’t take much to imagine that they’ll be hard-pressed to make a long playoff push this year. Realistically, they might not even make the playoffs. And then, the seat under GM Jarma Kekäläinen’s butt is going to start getting warm.
It’s amusing to me that some media outlets are high on the Blue Jackets. Are they undervaluing the aging Rangers and Capitals to that much of an extent that the Blue Jackets will seriously challenge them for the Metro Division lead? Washington still has Braden Holtby, Alex Ovechkin, and T.J. Oshie. The Rangers rely on Lundqvist too much, but they are still talented up and down their lineup and added Kevin Shattenkirk to bolster their defense. I don’t buy the idea that Columbus has what they need to make the strides to get out of the first round.
At least they can just hit everyone if all else fails.